5 Day Advent of Songs – Day 2 – Angus Stone

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River (J Mitchell) – Angus Stone 2007

In 1971 Joni Mitchell released her seminal album Blue, she was already a star of the folk-rock movement, and with her partner Graham Nash, they were the golden couple of LA’s Laurel Canyon in the period 1968-70. The legendary trio Crosby, Stills and Nash were formed in her home after they harmonised together in her dining room one evening. But once Nash asked Mitchell to marry him, she shied away from the perceived domesticity of such a union, and the limitations she felt it would place on her creativity and artistic life, despite her physical attraction for Nash “He tried hard to help me/You know, he put me at ease/And he loved me so naughty/Made me weak in the knees/ Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on…”.Below – Joni Mitchell, Album Blue, Joni and Graham Nash.

River was the Mitchell/Nash breakup song, a melancholy ode that has become a Christmas classic because it juxtaposed the commerciality of the season with a frozen river and the painful breaking of emotional bonds “It’s coming on Christmas/They’re cutting down trees/Putting up reindeer/ Singing songs of joy and peace/ Oh I wish I had a river / That I could skate away on …”

It’s considered a Christmas song because of the opening verse, and the reference to traditional seasonal tropes like Christmas trees, carols, and reindeer, and the fact that musically the original piano accompaniment borrowed heavily from the 19th century seasonal favourite Jingle Bells.

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Melancholy Christmas songs like River certainly tug at the heartstrings – 2000 Miles (The Pretenders), Last Christmas (Wham), The First of May (The Bee Gees), Christmas (Baby Be Home Soon) (Darlene Love), White Winter Hymnal (The Fleet Foxes), Hard Candy Christmas (Dolly Parton), Christmases When You Were Mine (Taylor Swift), Christmas Lights (Coldplay), are not filled with the jolly cadences of happy revelers, nor seasonal celebration, and could comfortably relate to almost any time or season of the year, when people are emotionally invested in what’s happening around them. Joni Mitchell gifted us a big icy blue Christmas wish, to just skate away from memories and emotional entanglements, but the residual sadness remains, we love and we’re loved, we hurt and we get hurt, we forgive and are forgiven, but the memories remain, and maybe we revisit them every Christmas. River has been covered many times by such artists as James Taylor, Ellie Goulding, Sarah McLachlan, Linda Ronstadt and many more, including Australia’s Angus Stone, below.

Angus possesses a deceptively feminine-like tenor/falsetto voice, equally suitable for lead or harmony vocalising, which he frequently does with his sister Julia, and here he effectively showcases Mitchell’s haunting and beguiling lyrics. Unsurprisingly his version of the song has a dreamy, trippy, stoner ambience to it, gently strummed acoustic guitar by Angus and wistful strings impart a beautiful resonance to a floaty, fragile, ethereal indie-folk version of this classic, that was both warm and enveloping, and appeared on the 2007 compilation album No Man’s Woman.(image above)

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